For Australian actor Hugh Jackman, 2006 was a banner year. As if to make up for the attrocity that was Van Helsing, Jackman starred in two films of astonishing depth, beauty and interest that were equally obscure and poorly promoted disproportionate to how good they actually were. One of them was dueling Victorian magician film The Prestige, and the other was The Fountain.
Nevermind, for the sake of this review, that in the same year he was also a voice in Happy Feet and played Wolverine in X-Men: The Last Stand.
Being directed by Darren Aronofsky, whose previous work includes the mind-altering π and Requiem for a Dream, one should easily have expected The Fountain to be as astonishing as it was emotionally and intellectually challenging. Many evidently did not, if the sheer number of people walking out on the theatre when we saw it was any indication.
We can't really blame that half-dozen for walking out a half-hour in, as we've never seen a film so deceptively advertized. To watch the trailers for The Fountain, it seems like a fairly straightforward Sci-Fi film about Conquistador Tomas who finds the Edenic Tree of Life in South America, then fastforwards to the same Thomas Creo living the present day and trying to cure his wife's cancer to bald astronaut Tom flying in some kind of space bubble with the same Tree of Life. Perhaps a little weird and 2001-esque, but still straightforward.
Furthermore, it promises to deliver both implicitly and explicitly on our leisure culture's greatest obsession: the conquest of death. Of course, it is implied by Hugh Jackman living for at least 1000 years. But it is also stated outright when he exclaims things like "Death is a disease... and I will cure it." Brilliant and timely... Was it not relatively recently that Stephen Hawking made back-page news by proposing solutions to the problem of eventual human exinction? Do not the constant stream of news articles about robots and prosthetics, and changed legislation on issues like stem-cell research, promise a golden, transhumanist age for our species Hell-bent on ecological destruction and nihilistic uncertainty?
However, to say "bait-and-switch" would not be doing The Fountain's stunt justice. Instead of a straightforward Sci-Fi film, we get a modern drama nested between metaphor and symbolism that completely contradicts the implied theme of the film. The modern day incarnation of the Thomas character is a cancer researcher feverishly spending day and night on a cure for his own dying wife, who is reconciling herself to death by writing a book, "The Fountain", about a Conquistador searching in South America for the Edenic Tree of Life. Provoked by all things Mayan, she is fascinated by the myth of First Father - the Mayan Adam whose sacrifice gives seed to the Tree of Life from which everything else grows - and of Xibalba - the nebula of a dying star that is the Mayan world of the dead. Meanwhile, a strange South American tree whose compounds seem to retard and then reverse aging holds out hope for the dogged researcher.
Further confounding this non-linear alternating between the modern drama and the metaphoric layering are the symbolic interludes of a Buddhistic, sphere-enveloped Jackman taking the Tree of Life to this same nebula of Xibalba, to carry out his wife's 500 year old wish to be resurrected with the star's rebirth. Amidst all this we receive a meditation, not on eternal life, but on reconciliation to death. In one of the film's few Christian glosses, it opens with a paraphrase from the Book of Genesis about the trees of Knowledge and of Life, and how Man was cast out of the Garden and guards set up to protect the Tree of Life. The trailer implies that this unfortunate state of affairs will be reversed. The movie explains why this blessed state of affairs must be so.
The only other substantial reference to Judeo-Christian tradition is the Grand Inquisitor of the film's Spanish flashbacks. Looking to usurp the Queen of Spain for her heresy of seeking eternal life in the forests of South America, the self-flagellating Inquisitor humourlessly mouths the enduring Gnostic-Pagan belief that the body is a prison for the soul which is released by death. This view forms the fundamental underlying narrative of the West, however much it is blamed on Jews and Christians. Where in past ages the Barbarians and Philosophers argued that the soul and body were separate and the body inferior, our self-declared Brights and Freethinkers agree that the soul and body are separate and that there is no such thing as a soul. Thomas Creo agrees, in his own way, with the Grand Inquisitor by having nothing to do with fairytales of the afterlife, and viewing death as the ultimate disease that destroys everything he loves. Both view death merely as the cessation of life, good or bad.
What his wife, and eventually he, discovers is death as transformation. For death is not the end of life, but the instrument of change, not only as change in our forms, but as change within our lives. Death and knowledge of good and evil come hand-in-hand, because without death there cannot be growth and perspective... The mere act of reconciling oneself to finality - the stages of life, the death of loved ones, the decline of civilizations, the exinction of humanity, the self-immolation of the Sun, the extinguishing of the universe - brings with it wisdom and grace that fully realizes one's personhood in this stage of existence and prepares one for the next. As horrifying and painful as death is and however much we may dance macabre in defiance of it, it is nevertheless this instrument of growth.
The opposite, eternal life, would bring only stagnation as there is no finality and therefore nothing to reconcile to. Just ceaseless living. Not even being... simply living. It is also illusory. Perhaps we could download our consciousness into machines (the body as a prison for the soul) and colonize the universe (the earth as a prison for humanity), but we would still have to face the eventual collapse or cold petering-out of the cosmos. Death is inevitable, and in our constant obsession to cure death it may be that we will give up on actually living. As Thomas discovers, it isn't death that takes away everything he loves: it is eternal life. Reconciliation to death gives us the grace and wisdom to lead lives of enduring, transcendant value.
The growth, wisdom and grace that comes from reconciliation to death prepares us for the transformation. The Fountain tends towards a more naturalistic idea of transcendant transformation than, say, the Christian idea of resurrection. In the course of the film, it is the All of the universe to which death ushers us into, whether our continuance in the natural or the cosmic cycles of growth, death, decay, and our elements forming the building blocks of the next growth. Call it the All, or the Ground of All Being, or Nothingness, or God, or whatever you like, the point is the same. Death, like, birth, ushers in the next stage of existence in the movement from biocentrism and egocentrism to transcedant formless mysticism, from Malkuth to En Soph. The reference to the Kabbalistic Tree of Life is not pithy either: the true Tree of Life includes death.
Regarding The Fountain, Aronofsky was quoted as saying of Science Fiction and stories of technology that "We've seen it all. It's not really interesting to audiences anymore. The interesting things are the ideas; the search for God, the search for meaning." Here he, like his film, articulates the deep primitivism of the transhumanist thinking espoused by Thomas Creo. Naievely, it looks to science for hopes and answers to questions that we know it cannot answer... questions which its most ardently religious disciples dismiss with a conjuror's wave and a snide accusation of "superstition". The most relevant and interesting Science Fiction is not that which tells us about technology and what we can do to the cosmos with it, but about ourselves and our place in the cosmos.